Closing the American Indian achievement gap in Minnesota schools


According to a 2009 report to the State of Minnesota, only two of five American Indian high school students in Minnesota graduate high school within four years, as compared to four out of five white students. That’s just one of the statistics on the American Indian student achievement gap, which was the focus of a November 15 conference, sponsored by the Minnesota Humanities Center. In broad terms, the achievement gap is defined as significant disparities between groups of students. The MHC invited parents, community members, teachers, and school administrators to Mounds Park American Indian Magnet school in St. Paul to review the achievement data of American Indian students, especially as described in the report.

The report was compiled by the Advisory Task Force on Minnesota American Indian Tribes and Communities and K-12 Standards Based Reform. Representing the advisory task force at the meeting were Annamarie Hill, Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Brent Gish, Superintendent of Red Lake Schools, Brenda Peltier, Principal of Mounds Park All Nations Magnet, and Jackie Fraedrick, longtime educator and chair of the Advisory Task Force. Each of the educators who served on the Task Force work for districts with significant populations of American Indian students.

Speaking to the findings of the 2009 report, members of the task force described the achievement gap as “persistent” and “one that widens over time.” As examples, the report provides statewide data on reading and math scores collected from MCA tests taken by students during the 2007-2008 school year. In the third grade, 66 percent of American Indian students in Minnesota scored at proficient reading levels as compared to 86 percent of white students. By the fifth grade the gap widened as 54 percent of American Indian students were deemed proficient in reading as compared to 80 percent of white students. In junior high and high school the gap widened further as less than half of American Indian students tested as proficient in reading as compared to three-fourths of white students. Math scores were worse, though neither American Indian students or white students could be said to be scoring well in math. By the eleventh grade, 38 percent of white students scored proficient in math, compared to 11 percent of American Indian students.

Educators who served on the Task Force re-stated several of the recommendations made in the report at the meeting. Jackie Fraedrick said family members need to “start young” when preparing their future students for school by reading to pre-K students. Superintendent Gish agreed, reflecting on the data from Red Lake, where only six percent of kindergarten students arrived for their first year of school ready to learn. All-day kindergarten was included as a necessity for closing the achievement gap. The Advisory Task Force found that in order for American Indian students to catch up in school students would have to make more than a year’s progress in school for each of the first several years of school.

Red Lake Superintendent Gish was cautious but optimistic, carefully pointing out the need for school districts to institute those measures which they find meet the needs of their students. He reported on initiatives by Red Lake schools to improve their attendance in the years following the 2005 shooting at the high school. In 2006, Red Lake surveyed students to determine how they might begin to restore confidence in the schools. Among other things, the survey revealed a small subset of high school students who were parents of young children had gone absent from school because they lacked affordable day care. Gish described a decision to provide their high school-aged parents with in-school day care. Red Lake Schools, he said, succeeded in bringing approximately three-fifths of these students back to school. The 2010 graduates from Red Lake High School included several of the young parents, including the class valedictorian and salutatorian.   

Members of the Advisory Task Force made several major recommendations to the state of Minnesota in their 2009 report. Along with all-day kindergarten, they urge increased opportunity for American Indian teachers to serve on curriculum committees, asking all state committees who meet to address standards to review the American Indian Curriculum Framework as a way to incorporate American Indian cultural ideas and practices across a wide set of academic disciplines.